Why We do What We Do: The Design of Learning Space

Learning is shaped, for better or worse, by the environment where it takes place. Current research on cognitive science demonstrates that learning requires both an internal process of assimilating new information and a social process of discussion and negotiation to build new understanding. Knowledge is constructed both through engagement with ideas and with others, so communication, collaboration and exploration are all critical activities. Well-designed learning environments support, facilitate and enhance both teaching and learning, while poor and even mediocre learning space can present obstacles to be overcome. This critical need drives our passion for creating effective, inspired learning environments.



Think about how much the world has changed in the last three decades, and how rapidly it will continue to change in the years to come. How can we ensure that teaching is responsive to the evolving demands of the 21st century, and how can we best model spaces to enhance both teaching and learning?

Enough Space, but Not Too Much. Learning spaces should be sized based on the number of people expected to occupy the space and on the planned activities, and the per-person area needed depends on a variety of factors including age, grade level, pedagogy and specific activities. Total space should be enough that students and teachers can complete their activities and move comfortably through the space with whatever tools and materials are needed. At the same time, spaces which are too large are not only an unnecessary expense but feel empty, uninviting and sometimes intimidating.

The Right Kind of Space. We need different types of space for different aspects of the learning process, as well as spaces for various kinds of activities. (David Thornburg’s cave, campfire and watering hole architypes are described in this previous post. Today’s classrooms are often required to reconfigure quickly from large group to small group to individual activities, and just as much learning happens outside the classroom as inside. From large lecture hall to quiet reading nook, from classroom to science lab to makerspace to team room to lunchroom or break room, the best learning environments provide a range of spaces scaled for different numbers of occupants, different tasks, and different levels of activity.

Healthy Interior Environment. Natural daylighting and views to the outside, controlled room acoustics and improved indoor air quality have been shown to enhance student performance, reduce absenteeism for both students and staff, and increase user satisfaction and well-being. One study completed by the California Board of Energy Efficiency, involving 21,000 students, showed that test scores were 15% to 26% higher in classrooms with daylighting. Levels of artificial lighting should be adjustable and suitable for the range of tasks anticipated, and low-glare indirect sources are almost always superior. Appropriate acoustical absorption to control reverberation time and acoustical mass to ensure isolation from external noise sources improves speech intelligibility, enabling better communication and understanding, improving student focus and enhancing learning.

Furniture, Fixtures and Equipment. Regardless of whether the environment is a classroom or a non-traditional learning space, furniture and equipment are the elements in the space with which students are in the most direct contact. Those contact points can have a tremendous impact (positive or negative) on learning. Heavy, inflexible and restrictive tablet-arm chairs have been replaced on many campuses by modular tables and lighter weight individual chairs, which offer more expansive work surfaces, easier reconfiguration as activities change, and more freedom of movement for fidgety students. Mobile white boards, laptop/tablet carts, and mobile maker workstations enhance this flexibility by allowing a single learning space to support a broad range of different activities.

Flexible Technology. Technology in today’s classroom is more than just computer stations at the back of the room and Power Point at the front, and it has an important function beyond the classroom as well. Students increasingly demand immediate access to information and media-rich content wherever they are, and educators are finding ways to integrate new media into the learning process. Technology has transformed the way students interact with each other and the world around them, and in so doing altered the character of spaces on campus. As the technology and its application evolve, learning space needs robust and flexible infrastructure to accommodate both today’s and tomorrow’s tech.



Great teachers can accomplish a lot, even in mediocre facilities, but there is no reason that learning space should be an obstacle to learning rather than an enhancement. A complete, integrated learning environment provides the space needed for all the different activities in today’s pedagogy, from individual quiet study to large group action. Properly equipped, great learning space helps students listen and communicate, collaborate and explore.


Jonathan Rollins is a Principal with GFF Architects